Several years ago, when we lived in the thick of the suburban jungle, we would load up the jogging stroller with a toddler, strap the youngest in a carrier, while our eldest sauntered alongside, and embark on an urban pilgrimage to the grocery store. I (Ruth) carried along the same backpack I had used while hiking the Camino in Spain, except now it was filled to the brim with milk, pasta, fruit, and vegetables—with baguettes strapped on the sides. Although we did not manage to do all our shopping this way, we made it a regular habit to walk rather than drive, trading convenience for a less tangible reward. It was one of the small anachronisms that resisted the unbearably fast pace of life, and prompted many a driver who zoomed past to take note and wonder: Why would anyone choose to do something so slow and effortful?
Now that we live on the edge of Mennonite country, we frequently encounter horse-drawn carriages conveying families to the grocery store or church, young ruddy-cheeked men and women cycling long distances to school or work, or gaggles of children walking alongside the fields toward home. Most of us cannot imagine (and may not desire) to return to such a seemingly cumbersome pace of life.
Yet in an age where technology has wholly reformed our imagination, visible models of anachronism serve an essential role in reminding us that slowness and effort make us more human.
You may be among the many people looking for guidance and support as you experience a tectonic shift in our relationship to technology amid a sea of digital deluge. This sea is vast and its surface remains mostly unbroken. It reflects the present default axiom when it comes to our technology: “anywhere, anything, anytime, for anyone." In the midst of this flood, there are only rare examples that make ripples by modeling the opposite: “only in certain places”, “not everything”, and “it depends on your age."
Though the immensity of the task of reining in the effects of digital technology on our lives may seem daunting, we must remember that we still have agency. We do not have to wait for reforms to move from the top toward us. We can start from a bottom-up direction and instigate seeds of change by unsettling the assumptions about omnipresent technology use.
Haley Baumeister recently commented in the lively discussion on Dixie Dillon Lane’s post at Tech in the Family that “People can't practice or do what they've never seen done. This is true of more analog and human ways of living in 2023. And modeling such lives can be contagious.”
While we cannot possibly expect to offer suggestions for anachronistic practices that speak to everyone, we would like to inspire you to stand out, to model different choices, and yes, even to be weird, by sharing some of our own decisions that we have made over the last two decades. Depending on your relationship to technology and your life philosophy, they may strike you as absurd, reasonable, or as not going far enough, but we hope that the examples will spur you on to sow your own seeds of anachronism.
"We act in hope that repeated exposure to the Good, the beautiful, and better will eventually win over hearts and wills and triumph over ease, convenience and in some cases addiction."
—Hadden Turner, writes Over the Field
How to Sow Seeds of Anachronism in Your Life
1. Flip your phone
One of the most anachronistic choices you can make today is going cell phone-free, using a flip phone, or moving to a “light phone.” While there are situations, such as taking care of an elderly or ill parent, when being reachable is important, most everyday situations do not require us to be as tethered as we are.
Never having had a cell phone, I can confirm that this choice is very possible—albeit at times inconvenient—and builds a solid foundation for cognitive liberty. Friends and family know they can reach me by landline or e-mail, and that I will get back to them when I am available.
Helpful phrases: (all have been frequently tested with friendly tone and demeanor, with results ranging from raised eyebrows to interesting exchanges and offered discounts).
“Do you accommodate people who choose not to use a cell phone?”
“May I ask why you choose to prioritize customers who place orders digitally over customers who are present here and now?” (when standing in line at coffee shop)
“I choose not to use a cell phone. Can I still take advantage of your offer without a QR code?”
2. Walk and get your bearings straight
Life is tuned to the speed of feet. As much as possible, we start our day with a walk through the neighborhood or forest which helps to reorient us to a proper pace, is conducive to conversations, and ties us to reality.
When driving, we don’t use GPS. Instead, we write down driving instructions and make a hand-drawn simple map. This may sound incredibly outlandish, but it will literally shift and deepen your connection with your surrounding environment. By relying wholly on GPS instructions, we lose the important fundamental skill of being able to position ourselves independently. We need a machine to tell us where we are. This dependence leads to a thinning experience of physical locations, which are replaced with more abstract representations of the world.
If you want to take it to another level, walk the routes that you customarily drive to get a true sense of the distance and anchoring of your surroundings. We once walked nearly three hours to a bookstore we frequented, and gained a clear understanding of how strangely driving warps our sense of distance, while blurring the unique landscape features along the way.
3. Choose ink
When a twenty-year-old drops the keyboard and takes up the fountain pen, a wondrous individualization transpires.
"The keyboard “technologizes” them into users. There, they produce the same fonts. The pen characterizes them as distinct. They produce unique scripts…To compose a cliché with a Pelikan in hand is harder than to compose one on a Mac."
—from The Pen and the Keyboard by Mark Bauerlein
Writing by hand, especially with pleasing fountain pens, attaches weight and meaning to our words, slows down the thinking process, and allows time for deliberate expression.
Peco and I both start our writing process for each article by hand, laying an unmachined foundation, interspersed with conversations over breakfast and lunch, and only then move on to the keyboard phase.
These are some of our notes form the last few months (hard to tell from this perspective, but they actually stack over 5 inches high).
Shannon Hood composed 100s of handwritten letters in 2019 and 2020 in part to demonstrate to her children that the hand-written word is worth fighting for. This is one of the traditions that our family has adopted over the last 15 years and affirms the unique importance of family and friends who frequently report how delighted they were to receive a letter.
The Letter Writers Alliance is a splendid resource I chanced upon, containing a myriad of avid letter-writing groups and international pen-pal matchmakers for both children and adults.
4. Spread words
Building a “Little Free Library” at the edge of our lawn was a project that we started as soon as we moved into our current home. People come by daily to check for new mysteries, old favorites, or kids chapter books. It is an excellent way to get to know neighbors while spreading a counter-cultural practice. The books are completely free and make the rounds on a “take, bring, or keep” basis. Our box has never been empty. Here are some examples of Little Free Libraries from around the world to inspire you to build your own.
Alternatively, you can simply spread books in public places. The Bookcrossing is an excellent resource that provides guidance on the best places to leave your books, as well as offering a search system to locate over 14,309,627 books that are currently travelling throughout 132 countries.
5. Read or knit (or both)
"Knitting is very conducive to thought. It is nice to knit a while, put down the needles, write a while, then take up the sock again."
There are two kinds of people that are easy to approach in public: those who read books and those who knit.
This week we had the chance to witness the fruit of a combination of these public anachronisms while at an engineering competition with our youngest son. Almost all of the audience members had their phones actively or passively in hand, apart from my friend and I who were knitting and chatting, and the man seated next to us who was reading a book. I glanced over and noted that it was a book on saints. All it took was an easy “May I ask what you are reading?” to open up a lengthy and surprisingly deep conversation with a stranger (who as it turned out just started attending the same church we do).
6. Leave the kids alone
"Let children alone... the education of habit is successful in so far as it enables the mother to let her children alone, not teasing them with perpetual commands and directions - a running fire of Do and Don’t ; but letting them go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way and grow to fruitful purpose."
Over the years, we have learned to step back and let our children play outdoors, explore, and make decisions untethered by phones.
Recently, our teenage son decided to go on a 10 km march/run in the countryside, showed us his planned path, and his expected return time—no phone needed. He came back enthusiastic and beaming. Our younger son regularly roams the neighborhood with a pack of friends in search of tadpoles, salamanders, and adventures. Some rules do apply, but they have freedom to make decisions, solve problems, and grow in self-confidence.
While certain neighborhoods are more conducive to “leaving kids alone”, there are myriads of ways to step back and allow for resilience to develop.
For concrete starting points, we highly recommend the Let Grow project founded by Jonathan Haidt, Peter Gray, and Lenore Skenazy, who are spearheading a movement to help children regain their independence. The site Wait Until 8th also has excellent resources to support parents who choose to wait to give their child a phone.
Does walking to the grocery store really make a difference? Does drawing a map by hand rather than using a GPS mend our addled minds? Does writing a letter in dip ink stop the Machine? The instinctive answer might be simply ‘no’, but when we consider that all meaningful change must start with small actions, even when they appear futile, it is a resounding ‘yes’!
“Still, there is nothing for it but to get started. All of the best work is small work, after all.”
—from The Blizzard of the World by Paul Kingsnorth
So find your anachronism. Use a flip phone in public. Take a pilgrimage to the grocery store. Debate Jane Eyre with a friend at a cafe. Sing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus to an urban crowd. Knit a scarf on the subway. Say grace in Latin at an airport restaurant. Ripple the unbroken digital surface. Change yourself and the people around you with the good, the beautiful, and the quirky—and most of all, with the things that keep us truly human.
Peco and Ruth Gaskovski write together on School of the Unconformed and Pilgrims in the Machine, focusing on navigating daily life in a technological age. Peco is also the author of Exogenesis (Ignatius Press), a science fiction novel that explores a future divided between a traditional and Machine society.